Bursting the bubble – the ethics of political campaigning in an algorithmic age

The ICO’s investigation into the use of data and analytics in campaigning is likely to prompt the creation of a new code of conduct for political parties, according to information commissioner Elizabeth Denham

Liberal leader William Gladstone’s ‘Midlothian Campaign’ prior to the 1880 general election —  including the speech at West Calder depicted here — is often cited as the first modern political campaign  Credit: PA

The so-called Midlothian Campaign that swept Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone to power in the 1880 general election is often cited as the first example of a modern party-political campaign.

But, though Gladstone may have helped cultivate techniques that have endured for 140 years, modern technology has the potential to radically reshape the campaigning landscape more or less instantaneously. Many would argue that it has already done so.

Gladstone’s campaign consisted of a series of speeches (one of which is depicted above), primarily centred on the subject of foreign policy. Some of these orations stretched to a reported five hours in length.

There were no designated hashtags, dedicated subReddits, or online #GladFans illustrating the impact of the former prime minister’s words with a GIF of Will Ferrell reacting to something.

I think the political parties know that the technology has changed so quickly… we need to take a step back and say: ‘what will people accept?’

And Gladstone, while he may have had a slick campaign-management set-up by 19th century standards, did not have a team of pollsters working out how best to target each demographic, nor did he have algorithms and analytics on hand to help ascertain the impact of his brand and messaging.

The potentially transformative impact of modern technology and data-science techniques is such that the Information Commissioner’s Office last year launched an investigation into how data is used by political parties in campaigning. The regulator’s efforts may, ultimately, help inform the creation of a new code of conduct that all parties will agree to adhere to, according to Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

The commissioner this week told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that the ICO’s ongoing investigation – which is due to publish a report in the spring – has encountered some difficulties obtaining information from bodies involved in campaigning around the 2016 referendum on European Union membership. 

“We have had to serve an information notice on some [campaigning] parties, which means that we are trying to compel information that they won’t share with us,” she said.

A notice has been served on UKIP, and the party has appealed the notice to the information tribunal, which is yet to return a decision. Denham told the select committee that “in terms of campaigns, that is the only [information] notice we have served” so far. 

But another notice, which is shortly to be served on an as-yet unidentified organisation, “is in train”, the commissioner said.

Coded messages 
The goal of the ICO’s investigation is to determine whether the algorithms and analytics that allow for modern-day political campaigning to be precisely targeted require new data-protection codes and guidelines. Denham told MPs that, even if people are, broadly, accepting of “behavioural advertising” being conducted by commercial entities to market their products, the UK needs to examine “what we think about that being applied to our democracy”.

The ICO investigation will look at how political campaigning and public discourse is impacted by ‘filter bubbles’ – online information feeds or search results that are tailored for individual users by algorithms that analyse and interpret their past behaviour to determine what content they would most like to see. This algorithmic insight allows for “micro-targeting” of messages, Denham said.

“What we hope to reveal [in the investigation] is the use of data,” she said. “We are not investigating fake news, or bots, or campaign financing – we are just looking at data-protection issues in micro-targeting.”

She summarised the central question of the investigation thus: “What is the impact of transactional politics?”

Denham told the committee that there is a consensus among the major political parties that greater clarity is needed in the rules that govern how they use data and algorithms.

“We have met with all the political parties in the context of this investigation, and they agree on one thing: that more and more data is available to them – but there is uncertainty on the use of that data,” she said. “Perhaps where this is all going to end up is a code of conduct that political parties can agree [to]. Because you do want a level playing field – you do not want one political party to be using data in a way that slightly crosses lines, and the others not [doing so].”

She added: “I think the political parties know that the technology has changed so quickly, and the use of third parties, and the availability of analytics, and the power of the social-media platforms have taken over. And we need to take a step back and say: ‘what will people accept?’.”

The commissioner said that any new potential rules dictating how political campaigns can – and cannot – use personal data and analytics could be either formal or informal in nature.

Perhaps where this is all going to end up is a code of conduct that political parties can agree… it could start with a voluntary agreement, but it could also end up being something that falls under the GDPR

“It could start with a voluntary agreement, but it could also end up being a code of conduct that falls under the GDPR,” she said. “The political parties have said that they are open to just saying: ‘Well, where’s the line?’.”

Denham added: “I don’t think that there’s a smoking gun in our investigation in any way, shape, or form, but I think it is going to reveal is that practices have changed really quickly, and it is time to say: are we OK with that? And what is allowed, and what shouldn’t be allowed?”

The commissioner concluded that the ICO wants to ensure that appropriate rules are established, so as to allow politicians to use technology in the necessary and important task of better engaging the public in the political process.

“There is so much value in political parties and campaigns talking to the electorate – they have to,” she said. “They have to get people out to vote, and be involved in our democratic system, and in public debate, so we know that data has to be shared and used to deliver messages – but how far is too far?”

Sam Trendall

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